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Are you ready to SOAR to Success? Embracing Appreciative Inquiry in Strategic Planning.

Here at HIP, we like to think we do things differently. One of the ways we stand apart from most Strategic Planning Consultants is our choice to use the SOAR method of strategic planning. When we speak with potential new clients, most ask us if we use SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), to which our answer is “We could; however, we recommend SOAR for non-profit clients.”

SOAR Strategic Planning
SOARing to success together

What is SOAR Strategic Planning?

This is a great conversation starter as it leads to many questions: What is SOAR? Why SOAR? How does SOAR work? What are the benefits of the SOAR model?

For a consultant, these questions are like nuggets of gold. They allow us to explain why we have chosen SOAR as our primary strategic planning model and to provide stories of how it has changed our strategic planning conversations with non-profits from one of “scarcity” to “abundance.”

The key to the SOAR model is its focus on appreciative inquiry. Positive Psychology says appreciative inquiry is a “collaborative, strengths-based approach to change in organizations and other human systems.” It asks different questions and focuses on building upon the organization’s assets, capacity, and resources to shape a strong future.

What sets SOAR Apart from other planning models?

SWOT, and many other strategic planning models, focus on problem-solving, finding the root cause of situations, and creating a plan that fixes what is wrong. In the non-profit sector, focusing on fixing problems inevitably leads the Board and Management team to get bogged down in what needs to be corrected. SWOT reinforces a deficit mindset where there isn’t enough of anything to make the organization thrive, and the future looks bleak. I’ve been there, done that and seen the results. It’s not pretty, and the conversation isn’t uplifting.

With a focus on strengths and building on what’s great about an organization, SOAR shifts the focus to what is possible. How do we build on our existing capacity and strengths? How do we get creative to achieve our goals? It encourages participants to dream, to innovate, to stretch, and in doing so, to find the opportunities that arise from current challenges. The process flips the conversation on its head, building trust, encouraging thinking outside of the box, and engaging people to make them feel optimistic, empowered, and uplifted.

What does SOAR stand for?

The strength of SOAR lies in the questions asked around four key themes: Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results. Strengths questions open the dialogue and set the stage for thinking differently and building on what is good. They help capture assets, capacity, reputation, relationships… the list goes on depending on how the questions are framed..

Opportunities questions focus on what we need to consider moving forward (this may include funding challenges or increasing pressure to do more with less) and raise awareness without restricting participants from getting stuck on “threats or challenges.” Instead, the group is invited to examine how threats and challenges become opportunities.

Aspirations is about dreaming BIG. These questions focus on what is positive and push the “impossible” into what if possible? How might we accomplish it? When a group thinks this way, stretch goals and dreams become doable. When a dream is big, the conversation turns to: How might we get this done? What do we need to do this? Where will we find that? Who do we need to involve? Why would others be interested in getting involved?

The final set of questions brings things back to reality. Results. Based on the conversation around Strengths, Opportunities and Aspirations, the strategic planning team now has a solid picture of what is possible. It can make choices and prioritize based on what drives success in the direction they want to go. It is at this point that participants dig into what are the goals and objectives. Strategic prioritization is the focus of this stage of the planning process.

SOAR as a Tool of Engagement

One of the other great things about SOAR is a focus on engaging staff, management, stakeholders, community partners, and other interested parties (volunteers, potential board members, etc.) in the conversation at various stages (Strengths, Opportunities, and occasionally Aspirations). By extending the invitation to others, you engage broader perspectives and ideas that may have yet to be considered. Not to mention, those involved have an increased understanding of your organization and have a vested interest in learning more about the outcomes. All of which lead to improved community awareness of your vision, mission, and goals in the broader outside community.

As we’ve experienced, the SOAR model of strategic planning positions an organization and its many stakeholders to look at the future through a positive lens – focusing on accomplishments, strengths, and opportunities – and use those positive elements to build a future that other organizations envy. It engages and empowers participants to become actively involved and inspires them to do their part. In a world where strategic plans tend to grow dusty, why not choose a planning model that engages a broad spectrum of participation, captures ideas, and interests, and builds lasting relationships in the community?

What planning model has your organization used in the past? What worked? What didn’t? Share your learnings below in the comments so we can learn together…

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